Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, right, gestures as he talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung after their joint press statement at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Photo: AP
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said on Thursday for the first time that his country is considering legal action against China, following the deployment of a Chinese oil rig to waters in the South China Sea that Hanoi also claims.
Dung's comments, which drew an angry response from China insisting that the rig was in its sovereign waters, did not specify what specific action his country would take, just days after China started evacuating its citizens from Vietnam following deadly anti-China riots.
"Vietnam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with international law," Dung said in an email sent late on Wednesday, while on a visit to Manila. He did not elaborate on the other options being considered.
"I wish to underscore that Vietnam will resolutely defend its sovereignty and legitimate interests because territorial sovereignty, including sovereignty of its maritime zones and islands, is sacred," he said.
Dung has demanded that China withdraw the rig, but Beijing insists that it has done nothing wrong.
Vietnam has notified the United Nations of China's actions, Deputy Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh told reporters in Manila.
China has rejected demands to withdraw the rig, accusing Vietnam of "stoking regional tensions".
"Now they are distorting the facts, conflating right and wrong on the global stage, blackening China and making unreasonable accusations against China," China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing.
"Just who is the one who is repeatedly challenging other countries' sovereignty? Who is the one who is causing tensions in the seas? Who on earth is destroying peace and stability in the South China Sea? Facts speak louder than words."
Anti-Chinese violence flared in Vietnam last week after a $1 billion deepwater rig owned by China's state-run CNOOC oil company was parked 240 km (150 miles) off the coast of Vietnam.
Hanoi says that the rig is in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf. China has said that the rig was operating completely within its waters.
The rig move was the latest in a series of confrontations between China and some of its neighbors. Washington has sharpened rhetoric towards Beijing, describing a pattern of "provocative" actions by China.
US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation by telephone with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh on Wednesday, the two governments said. Kerry also invited Minh to visit Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario said on Thursday in Manila that the Vietnamese government was evaluating whether to participate in the arbitration case launched at the United Nations tribunal by Manila last year, which challenges the legality of Beijing's claim to most of the South China Sea.
Dung refrained from saying whether Hanoi would join the Philippine action to take China to court in The Hague over its claims in the South China Sea, but he signaled that Hanoi is frustrated by a lack of options in the face of China's vastly superior military power and material resources.
At a daily news briefing Thursday in Beijing, Hong didn't address the possibility that Vietnam might join forces with the Philippines against it at The Hague. Instead, Hong portrayed China as a victim in the dispute, after anti-China feelings over the oil rig exploded into deadly violence at foreign factories in Vietnam last week.
"Vietnam should immediately stop disruptions of all types against Chinese operations, punish those who carried out violent activities including beatings and smashings, and ensure the safety of Chinese people and enterprises in Vietnam," Hong said.
"They should also stop disrupting China's oil drilling and compensate Chinese personnel and enterprises for their losses," he added.
China has consistently claimed that bilateral talks—not legal maneuvers—are the only way to resolve the region's territorial disputes. Last month, China's charge d'affaires in Manila, Sun Xiangyang, branded the Philippines' legal action a "mistake" that had "seriously damaged bilateral relations with China."